virtuality ¦ simulation

by Maxime Leblanc

This week’s readings deal with virtuality and simulation through four critical texts and essays. As is the case with all seminars in this class, these readings offer insight into selected topics of computer theory through historic, academic and critical texts aimed at providing a general understanding of issues and trends pertaining to the topic at hand. This essay will summarize all four readings and provide brief examples and opinions on them.

20/20 VR

The first text, 20/20 VR by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 book Being Digital, begins by questioning the legitimacy of the term virtual reality. He states that it is a blatant example of an oxymoron do to its apparent contradictory nature. He then goes on to tentatively describe the origins of VR and its uses in flight simulations and military training as exemplified by Ivan Sutherland’s 1968 Department of Defense-led prototypes for tank and submarine operators. Negroponte goes on to pessimistically describe the faults of current VR systems, stating: “VR is not yet fast enough [for credible immersion]”, and “Most manufacturers will probably miss the point totally and will market early VR systems that have as much image resolution as possible, at the expense of response time” (Negroponte 1995). According to him, the measure for how real a virtual experience is perceived is directly correlated to the marriage of image quality and response time. In addition, extra-visual sensoria (sound and haptic feedback) seem to significantly contribute to one’s sense of immersion as shown in Russ Neuman’s experiment on image quality and sound.

The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds: Report from Los Angeles

The second text, The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds: Report from Los Angeles by Lev Manovich attempts to categorize some tentative propositions on the aesthetics of virtual worlds. Opening with a quasi-dystopian marketing pitch for a fictitious new virtual world, Manovich attempts to share his view of VR as a commodity. He later states that “the reality effect of a digital representation can now be measured in dollars. Realism has become commodity. It can be bought and sold like anything else” (Manovich 1996) Manovich’s 1996 predications aren’t far off from today’s reality of VR marketing and sales. VR headset manufacturers offer differently-priced hardware depending on pixel count and frames-per-second. In addition, online 3D model libraries like Viewpoint DataLabs International (currently purchased and operated by software giant Computer Associates) offers digital objects with price-points that reflect the object’s complexity or polycount, thus commodifying one’s immersive experience. Similar to Negroponte’s text, Manovich provides readers with a brief history of the applications of simulation technologies. Habitat, SIMNET, VRML, Quicktime VR, BattleTech Center, Worldchat, etc. are presented in the first part of this text in order to provide a concise starting point for his visual aesthetic propositions featured in the second part.

Starting with his first proposition, Realism as Commodity, the author argues that given digital media’s inherent connection to numbers, it will become easy to commodify the digital world. For 2D images, spatial and color resolution constitutes its core. For 3D images, 3D resolution (tied to its temporal resolution) becomes the quantifiable units that will likely provide the basis for eventual price determination. Just as sex lines who charge clients on a minute-per-minute basis, “all dimensions of reality will be quantified and priced separately” (Manovich 1996).

The second proposition addresses the industrial method of producing art and how it affects the digital realm. The author argues that “the amount of labor involved in constructing three- dimensional reality from scratch in a computer makes it hard to resist the temptation to utilize pre- assembled, standardized objects” (Manovich 1996). Some creativity is therefore lost due to this pre-packaged, pick-as-you-go method for creating virtual worlds. In addition, Manovich argues that if even professional designers rely on ready-made objects, it will almost guarantee similar behavior by consumers who likely have little to no graphic or programming skills.

In his third point on the aesthetics of virtual worlds, the concept of the artificiality of virtual worlds comes into question. Through the example of web surfing, the author describes how we establish communication through the machine by glancing back and forth between the loading icon and status bar of a web page. It is precisely these blips in continuity that allow the machine to reveal itself to us, thus breaking the illusion of a ‘real’ world. The cyclical hiding and revealing of the machine will become an important consideration when developing hyper-realistic environment. Currently, our 21st century VR devices are attempting to become as inobtrusive as possible with as high a framerate as possible to insure a complete immersive experience.

The final principle attempts to define virtual space in terms of Panofsky’s neologisms: aggregate space and systematic space. Manovich begins by debunking the myth that virtual worlds deals with matters of space by stating that “virtual spaces are not true spaces but collections of separate objects. Or: there is no space in cyberspace” (Manovich 1996). At first, one might associate 3D environments with Panofsky’s concept of systematic space since 3D modeling environment typically deal with empty cartesian perspectival spaces onto which objects are inserted into. However, the superimposing of elements (ex: avatar characters into pre-generated backgrounds) might lead to an aggregate view of virtual worlds. The author summarizes his point by stating: “although computer generated virtual worlds are usually rendered in linear perspective, they are really collections of separate objects, unrelated to each other.

Simulacra and Simulation

Written by Jean Baudrillard in 1981, Simulacra and Simulations addresses concepts of reproducibility and the simulation of hyperreal environments. Baudrillard defines the simulacrum as a state where copies or reproductions have lost their relation to the original (substituting the appearance of the real for actual reality). Beginning his text with an analogy of our society using the example of Jorge Luis Borges’ tale of cartography, Baudrillard asserts that, through out reliance on models and maps, we have lost the true meaning of the world that preceded the map. Throughout his text, Baudrillard defines the three orders of simulacra which deal with increasing levels of dependency towards representative models. The first order of simulacra represents the status quo before the industrial revolution where images were understood to be clear copies of original work. The second order represents a partial blurring of what is reality and what is simulation due to industrialization which accelerated the rate of copies. Images begin to mask reality. The final order of simulacra represents a paradigm shift where simulation/representation precedes reality in a process that Baudrillard calls “precession of simulacra” (Baudrillard 1981). These three orders of simulation are extensively defined as four successive phases of the image. Baudrillard writes: “In the first case, the image is a good appearance: the representation is of the order of sacrament. In the second, it is an evil appearance: of the order of malefice. In the third, it plays at being an appearance: it is of the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer in the order

of appearance at all, but of simulation” (Baudrillard 1981). Ultimately, we can conclude that simulation is not simulated reality, because it has lost all notion of reality. He gives the example of Disney Land in which the simulation of the theme park competes with our understanding of reality. This tension between real and simulation thus brings the question of proving the validity of a system through its opposite. Baudrillard states that operational negativity leads to validation of a system: “It is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary; proving truth by scandal, proving the law by transgression; proving work by strikes …” (Baudrillard 1981). These concepts, although written in 1981, still hold true today as contemporary digital media constantly challenge or understanding of reality.

What Does Simulation Want?

The final paper is a short chapter called What Does Simulation Want? which appeared in Sherry Turkle’s 2009 book Simulation and Its Discontents. She begins her piece with a conversation that took place over lunch in 1977 at MIT with a former colleague who stated that “students had lost all sense of scale” (Turkle 2009) due to the apparition of the calculator and, later, the personal computer. She then adds that “professionals who voice discontent about simulation in science, engineering and design run the risk of being seen as nostalgic or committed to futile protest” (Turkle 2009). Through this generational gap appears a generalized sense of vulnerability caused by the immersiveness of the simulated world. Turkle concludes this short essay with words of caution in relation to the temptation to disregard reality in pursuit of total immersion. She says: “simulation demands immersion and immersion makes it hard to doubt simulation. The more powerful our tools become, the harder it is to imagine the world without them” (Turkle 2009).

Conclusion

Through these readings it has become evident that the topic of virtual reality and space pose deep philosophical concerns. Although the technology has been around for many decades now, the technology to create true immersiveness has only now begun to find its way to the consumer market. With the advent of such technology, these discussions on simulation, simulacra and commodity are becoming increasingly important. As we shift towards a more digital lifestyles we must continuously question our fundamental understanding of the spaces in which we live.

Cited Works
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” In Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, 166-184. edited by Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
Manovich, Lev. “1.3: The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds: Report From Los Angeles.” CTheory (May 22, 1996): 5-22.
Negroponte, Nicholas. “The Daily Me.” In Being Digital. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Turkle, Sherry. “What Does Simulation Want?” In Simulation and Its Discontents, 3-9. Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009.

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by Viktor Holubiev

I

Virtuality came into the broad culture in recent years with VR helmets, chats and video games as well as Simulation observed in the contemporary cinematography and CGI. However, this field has been studied for the decades and such studies and reflections on the topic are the main themes of this week readings.

 It is worth to start with the famous work of the French sociologist and Philosopher Jean Baudrillard – ‘Simulacra and Simulations’. This book is a product of postmodern philosophy which was ahead of its time with the conceptions which are deeply actual today. The concept of Simulacra is based on the Semiotics or in other words on the symbol. The definition says that it is a copy without an analogy in reality, for example, photography or an artwork which is relative to the Eidos is the copy of the copy.  A contemporary advertisement which is usually not matching with reality such as renders – which are originally idealized models of reality without origins in it or in other words – hyperreal pictures. 

 The simulation in its origins in the process of creating something from nothing or owning without having. Here, Baudrillard draws a parallel with the simulation of illness by producing symptoms. It is something which could be observed in the hypochondria when the unconscious starts to transform the healthy organism into the sick. In this situation, it is very hard to draw the line between the true and false. Whereas the symptoms are true as for the sick as for the observer, in fact, this is nothing as a simulation. “If he acts crazy so well, then he must be mad” – the quote that emphasizes that not only the observer of the simulation could not be confident about its truth but also the person who simulates. That was the problem for the iconoclasts’ whos motivation came from the written above – the simulation. To say it in another way, the graphical description or simulation of the God with icons is a not precise representation and according to the Simulacra definition – simulation of something which does not exist. It is, of course, more comfortable to keep the idea of Good more abstract and transcendent as, for example, Islamic religion do. 

 Baudrillard allocates four successive phases of an image which could be also compared to the types of simulacres. The first one is a simple reflection of reality which could be referred to a photography or filmmaking. The second one alters the reality, however, it could be painting or cartography which is obviously not a precise representation. The third one is hiding the absence of basic reality which, to my way of thinking, could be referred to advertisement or concept art and finally, the last one has no relation to the reality and becomes its own simulacrum. This could be referred to the concept of a simulated world like in the “Matrix” or “13th-floor” movies. This stages also could be named as real, neo-real and hyperreal which is, in general, could be titled as a ‘second-hand truth’.

 We could observe such behaviours and pursuits in the first luna-parks which were established on the Manhattan. The main idea was to create the parallel world behind the fence. When people cross the border they are no longer belong to this land but to the imagination world, the illusion which was supported by every piece of that place. The luna-park is no longer a real but hyperreal place in some way discrediting the reality. Nevertheless, such an approach only strengthen the concrete position of reality, some kind of the negative affirmation of the positive like “proving system by crisis”.

 The frame of the rules which lies on the society could be referred to the second order of simulacrum whereas simulation of a lawful or forbidden act (in this frame) is beyond the false and the truth, therefore could be marked as the third-order simulacrum. That is why it is “always a false problem to restore the truth beneath the simulacrum”.

II

It is worth to emphasize that digital reality works with digits but not with reality, correspondingly, the ‘reality’ is an idealised mathematical model which usually works looks and acts even better than the real, that is the topic highlighted in the book by Nikolas Negroponte. It is a fact that the car, plane, tank simulators are modelling the most extreme or ‘ideal’ situation to react. That is an understandable idea, however, it is still less impossible in reality. The first implications where used by NASA and constructed by Ivan Sutherland in the far 1968 which was intensively used further in military education.

 The first attempts to put one in the VR simulation had a problem with frames per second which destroyed all the experience. Nevertheless, the resolve of the problem becomes another problem – the quality of the image was too good. That means that resolution and quality were many times higher than the origin organ which VR should simulate – an eye. This has resulted in the few attempts to simulate the eye contact or in other words, extend the telecommunication by implementing the presence factor. The attempts to do that where barren, however, it has resulted in a series of interesting experiments involving our perceptual and psychological factors.

 Overall, the experiments with VR and the presence simulation show that our sight is not the only thing, which takes part in the process of seeing. That is to say, that the reality perception requires more sensory drivers than the sight, which is up to now the main aim of virtual reality developers.

III

The attempt to anticipate the existence of such tools is brightly described in the publication by Lev Manovich dated November 1995. From the first page we see how author tries to represent all his thoughts about the possibilities and capacities of Virtual Reality in the advertisement which is fairly inspired by the final application of VR in daily life which is eventually become possible  after years of theories and conferences, inevitably it is “a new way to work, communicate and play”.

 First virtual environments where constructed in the 80th where the participants could interact with the world as well as with each other “graphical representations – avatars”. One of the first was SIMNET developed by DARPA the first three-dimensional graphical environment with the possibility to interact with each other. Some of the Atari workers even said that the cyberspace originates from the game industry, however, the military simulators where rapidly retransformed into the entertainment systems those days. 

 The main trend was the spatialisation of data, creating the 3 dimensions pace for web users. One of the most noticeable attempts where done with Virtual Reality Modeling Language. Using this language users could construct 3D scenes which were connected to the web and as a result created the new type of media. The aim was to achieve the spatialisation of WWW or in other words, giving data the sense and the ability to percept it. Nonetheless, it was still impossible to interact between each other and, for that purpose the WorldChat and VirtualPlaces where created. They were the first attempts to connect and place people in the world of data.

 Such technologies helped game designers to return to the ancient forms of narrative telling the plot by the interaction and personalization of the character unlike the previous games concentrated on the moving through space.

 As could be observed, the increasing interaction and spatialisation where the main trends of that time. So where it all comes to the creation of the world there should some kind of aesthetics of the world be created. The first and foremost is realism. Realism becomes a value in the new reality, the value which simultaneously has a money equivalent. It is evident that this is the situation even nowadays. For example, high polygon models are always worth more than the low polygon ones. Also, with the new era of 3d, we could observe the “death of the author”. All the contemporary 3d artworks are mostly assembled with the ready stock models. The profession of visualizer is most of the time connected with composing the already made models in the 3d scenes. That means that the fantastic work of some author is, in reality, the work of multiple authors just gathered in one picture. This is also clearly seen in the 3d programs where you already have the set of 3d objects, textures, lights, effects etc. However, the virtual creation created the sublayers of creators which did not exist previously. For example, there are famous modellers which create the objects from the zero, like the 3d sculptors working in Zbrush while simultaneously there are the famous artists who take their models and combine them in the scenes making the separate artwork assembled from the parts. This could be compared to famous photography and famous collage. This all lead people for creating a system of creation –“you push the button we do the rest, has become you push the button, we create your world”.  

 The temporal dynamic is also something which inevitably becomes the part of the virtual world and a world web. We could see it while waiting for the page download, while the computer will address the information. Translating this into the 3d world means that the reality as a portion of information should be downloaded each second in the distance of perception. That means that it is highly rational to show and detail only that information which could be perceived. That observation has a connection with the virtual world conception where the light speed is the analogue of the spatial download capacity or in other words the virtual border to prevent the observation of “not downloaded universe”. Nonetheless, our experience in the VR is each time shifting by the menus and icons – the means of interaction, so the live experience is turning into the roller-coaster of reality and hyperreality. The author asks the question – “could the Brecht and Hollywood be married ?”, up to now, the answer is –yes. The new era of interaction movies come and we could observe such game masterpieces as “Detroit Become Human” by “Quantic Dream” which are nothing but the interaction movie where all the actions are the plot forming acts.

 “There is no space in cyberspace” – or in other words – “computers where born dimensionless and thus imageless”. We must keep in mind that a computer is not the “visual medium”. Everything we got is the illusion precisely modelled with the reference to our perceptions. That is why, it is so complicated to create the environment, the atmosphere between objects, one spatial frame that connects everything in one play of interaction. Hence, there is a new definition of an object in the virtual world – it is “something which can be clicked, moved, opened”. For that reason, we could paraphrase Descartes phrase applying it to the Virtual World as “I can be clicked on, therefore I exist”.

The whole picture of this world could be first observed in the “Toy Story” where the whole animated world where created. However, the author provides an example from reality –Los Angeles – the place where this cartoon was created. The city structure resembles the Virtual world by the absence of hierarchy. The locations are defined by the addresses rather than landmarks. The famous places are located in the middle of nowhere which is the result of a generic city structure, just as in the virtual world.

IV

Everything of the previously said could be titled as the paraphrased Churchill words – “first we make our technologies and our technologies shape us”. “What the brick want” – once the Louis Kahn asked. As the “brick” of contemporary technology is a simulation, we could fairly ask what the simulation want? That is the question asked by the MIT professor Sherry Turkle. 

 The key point here is to produce inside ourselves the new abilities for the new informational age. To doubt. It is obvious that the new design skills open the new possibilities for “research and learn”, however, to master your tools you should be aware of their presence. As the simulation creates immersion it is hard to doubt it because – “The more powerful or tools become, the harder it is to imagine the world without them”. However, it is the vital skill in this century – to doubt.

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